New powers relating to water will be devolved to the Welsh government and the Welsh Assembly under changes to the UK government’s Wales Bill currently being scrutinised by the Lords.
At present the UK government, in the shape of the Welsh secretary, can block legislation on water-related issues in any legislation made by the Welsh Assembly. Those powers will be replaced by a legal agreement between the Welsh and UK governments. The Welsh government has been calling for the devolution of these powers for some time.
The changes will take effect once a formal agreement between the two governments has been signed.
Welsh secretary Alun Cairns stressed: "The current powers allowing UK ministers to intervene on water issues will be replaced by a statutory agreement between the UK and Welsh governments. "Water has been a challenging issue as anyone familiar with recent Welsh history knows. I'm pleased we are now about to reach a definitive agreement that resolves past differences and provides clarity for the future."
The flooding of Welsh valleys and the ‘drowning’ of villages to create reservoirs to supply English cities like Liverpool and Birmingham remains a highly-charged and sensitive political issue in Wales. The details of the proposed agreement have yet to be published. Government minister Lord Bourne promised that a protocol setting out the terms of the deal would be produced by the time the bill gets to its report stage in the upper chamber. No date for that stage has been set yet.
When the issues were discussed in the Lords earlier in November Welsh peers lined up to insist that the National Assembly would have the full power to authorise or reject any proposal for the construction of new reservoirs in Wales. Peers also made it clear that Ofwat should be fully accountable to the National Assembly in respect of the functions the watchdog exercises in relation to Wales' water supply and sewerage issues.
Welsh peers want to ensure that at least one Ofwat board member is a joint appointment between the Welsh secretary and Welsh administration ministers and that the regulator is required to produce an annual report for both Welsh government ministers and the Welsh Assembly.
Some Peers want the protocol to be included on the face of the bill. At this stage Lord Bourne has only guaranteed that the existence of the protocol will be referred to in the legislation.